Woman is showering

Sensitive skin Managing irritated skin

Skin can become sensitive for many reasons, and any time in life, from babyhood to old age. Sensitivity occurs when skin’s protective barrier function is compromised, causing skin to become susceptible to external irritants, such as bacteria, chemical substances, allergens or others. Symptoms can appear on the face, body and scalp, and include redness, scaling and swelling. These can be itchy and disturbing in everyday life and can result in intense physical discomfort. While some people are predisposed to these ‘outbreaks’ of the condition, others are surprised by these sudden ‘skin moods’. Dry sensitive skin often reacts unpredictably and can appear anywhere on the body.

Understanding the importance of skin’s natural defenses, and the factors that weaken them, can help to decode the signs of sensitivity. The unpredictability of dry sensitive skin means that in many cases, effective solutions are about prevention rather than cure. The aim, therefore, is to control and minimize its causes and stimuli.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

What is sensitive skin and how to recognise it

Skin has a natural protective barrier, which keeps bacteria and harmful substances from entering the body, while limiting water loss and preventing dehydration. This process keeps skin healthy and moisturised, maintaining its elasticity and firmness.

However, external factors like climate and internal ones like stress can undermine this process, weakening skin’s natural defences and making it feel rough and dry. External stimuli can then exacerbate the situation, causing skin to become inflamed.

To recognise sensitive skin, look for:

  • Visible signs like erythema (redness or a rash), scaling, swelling or roughness
  • Sensory signs like itching, tightness, burning or stinging

Dry skin can occur on the face, lips, hands, body and scalp. And can be triggered by physical change too, either temporary, such as pregnancy, or ongoing, such as ageing. It shares some similarities with dry skin, but is not always related to that condition nor will its symptoms necessarily be alleviated by dry skin care solutions.

Graphic illustration of skin and its layers
The horny layer (stratum corneum) forms the uppermost layer of the epidermis and protects the body against external substances.
reactive skin with disturbed skin barrier
Healthy skin has a protective barrier which retains moisture and shields underlying layers from irritants.

To recognise hypersensitive skin:

Dry sensitive skin is closely related to hypersensitive skin and the symptoms and triggers are similar. However, with hypersensitive skin, the skin's nerves are even more sensitive and reactions can therefore be more frequent or severe. Hypersensitive skin is not a disease, it is a sensory feeling caused by an increased sensitivity of the skin's nerves.

Typically sufferers experience uncomfortable sensations such as stinging, burning or itching - none of which are visible - and these can be accompanied by visible signs such as redness or dryness (although this is not always the case). In severe cases Rosacea or Couperose-prone skin can develop. Rosacea is a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects up to 10% of the adult population and is particularly prevalent among people with fair hair. Symptoms include erythema (redness), red bumps, red blood vessels and irritated eyes.

If you are unsure about what skin condition you have, our skin test may be able to help, or ask your pharmacist for advice. For advice on medical condition you should consult your doctor .

CAUSES & TRIGGERS

Causes of sensitive skin - how skin’s natural defences become weakened

How skin protects itself

The uppermost layer of the epidermis is the horny layer (stratum corneum), which forms skin's barrier against the outside world. It prevents invasion by microorganisms and substances like chemicals and allergens. It also minimises transepidermal water loss (TEWL), protecting the body from dehydration.

Graphic illustration of skins horny layer.
A stable horny layer and intact hydrolipid film work together to limit the penetration of harmful substances and excess water loss.

The horny layer resembles a wall, made up of 'bricks' or skin cells, which provide stability, and 'mortar' or epidermal lipids, which create permeability and at the same time a solid cohesion. On its surface is a protective acid mantle, the hydrolipid film. This emulsion of water (hydro) and fat (lipo) has a slightly acidic pH value of 5, this:

  • maintains the healthy skin flora and skin scaling process (or desquamation), which is an essential part of skin’s renewal
  • and neutralises alkaline substances such as soaps and conventional surfactants.
When skin’s natural pH balance alters, its barrier function is compromised. Skin’s defenses are weakened, leading not only to increased trans-epidermal water loss, and further dryness, but also to the penetration of irritants, and sensitivity.

Irritants such as soaps can worsen skin’s condition through their alkalising effect, making it susceptible not only to inflammation but also infection from bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Internal causes of sensitive skin

  • Baby skin is thinner and its barrier function more limited than that of adults, making their skin far more sensitive to chemical, physical and microbial influences. Read more about skin in different ages.
  • Conversely, as skin ages, substances that are integral to the structure and functioning of the hydrolipid film and protective acid mantle become scarce leading to a pH imbalance and increased water loss. The number of Aquaporins in skin also depletes with age. Aquaporins are skin’s own moisture distribution channels, which supply it with the water and glycerol it needs to work as a protective barrier. When Aquaporins are depleted, skin’s barrier function can be compromised and water loss increases. This can make ageing skin more prone to sensitivity.
  • Hormonal imbalance, brought on by stress or through specific life events such as pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, puberty or the menopause. This can reduce the effectiveness of the skin’s barrier function.
  • Some people are more likely to experience irritated, sensitive skin. These include people with dry or damaged skin, Atopic Dermatitisacne and rosacea, all of which may react to irritants such as perfumes and colorants.
  • Undiagnosed or untreated intolerances and allergies to foods such as gluten, dairy, additives and eggs can result in skin inflammation and rashes.
  • Dehydration, from excess sweating or lack of water, can also dry out skin, and place it under stress.
Baby wrapped in a towel.
Because baby skin is thinner it is more sensitive than adult skin.
Middle-aged woman looking stressed, one hand on her forehead.
Stress can cause a hormonal imbalance which can reduce the effectiveness of the skin's barrier function.

External causes of sensitive skin

  • Seasonal and climate changes, and fluctuations in temperature can all increase skin sensitivity. In cold weather, skin glands reduce their secretion of substances necessary for the maintenance of the protective acid mantle, causing skin to dry out. Central heating and Air Condition can also have this effect. In hot weather, skin glands produce more sweat, which evaporates, leaving skin feeling dry.
  • An increased use of soaps and detergents with conventional surfactants can cause significant damage to skin’s surface, removing skin-protecting lipids and causing an imbalance in skin’s natural pH levels.
  • Some medical treatments such as radiotherapy and certain drugs can temporarily result in sensitive skin. It should clear up once the treatment ends.

Read more about factors that influence skin.

Woman applying cream on her face.
Some soaps and skin care products damage the skin's surface and unbalance its pH levels.
Two fingers holding a tablet.
Certain medications can make skin more sensitive although this is usually temporary.
CONTRIBUTING FACTORS

How actions and events can worsen the condition

An increase in attention to personal hygiene has meant that people are more likely to shower or bathe frequently in very hot water and rub themselves dry. This can result in a loss of natural moisturising factors and surface lipids. Cleansers with conventional surfactants will clean skin, but will also dry it out.

Hand opening water tap.
Excessive washing can dry skin out and make it more sensitive.
SOLUTIONS

What you can do about sensitive skin?

Changing daily habits

Small changes to bathing habits can help restore skin’s protective barrier by reducing the temperature of the water, not spending so long in the shower or bath (especially in an area with hard water), using mild tensides or shower oils and patting the skin dry.

Recent research into nutrition has shown that an increase in food high in antioxidants and Vitamin C and low in carbohydrates and saturated fats can help stressed skin recover and return to a healthier condition. It can also make sense to check for food allergies or intolerances. Visit a nutritionist or your doctor if you think this might be the case. Also drinking enough water is important, especially for elderly people.

Stress management can also play its part in reducing skin sensitivity. Proven methods include taking regular exercise and practicing relaxation techniques.

It can be tempting only to respond to sensitive skin when it flares up. However, if you put a regular moisturising routine in place – and maintain it – these incidents may reduce and even disappear. This routine may differ for sensitive face and body skin.

  • Choosing skincare products
    Dry sensitive skin is easily irritated by environmental triggers, making it even more sensitive. It requires more than gentle cleansing and moisturising to become less sensitive. 
  • Cleansing dry sensitive skin
    Many cleansers are so powerful they clean away not only the dirt on our skin but also the hydrolipid film that protects it. Look for products that contain mild surfactants that protect skin’s natural defenses and prevent it from drying out. Dry sensitive skin also benefits from ingredients that help to restore skin’s optimum pH.

For your face: Facial dry sensitive skin also benefits from a dedicated, mild cleanser. We recommend Eucerin DermatoCLEAN Mild Cleansing Milk.
 
Woman wrapped in towel.
Gently pat skin dry after showering to prevent further damage to the skin barrier.
Look out for products including Dexpanthenol for dry sensitive skin
Look out for active ingredients such as Dexpanthenol that work beneath the surface of the skin.

When choosing a moisturising product for dry sensitive skin, it isn’t enough to ensure it is free of irritants. The product needs to actively work below the surface of the skin, stimulating skin’s own regenerative processes and natural defenses. 

Look out for products that include Dexpanthenol, an active ingredient known for its regenerative properties, and Citrate Buffer, which restores and supports skin’s natural pH.

Gluco Glycerol is another key ingredient that supports skin hydration. It stimulates skin’s own moisture distribution channels – the Aquaporins. It has been clinically proven to significantly improve moisture level and support skin’s natural barrier function. Gluco Glycerol is the hero ingredient in the Eucerin AQUAporin ACTIVE range of facial moisturisers.

 

Woman applying cream on her hands.
Hands are vulnerable to dryness as they tend to be exposed and frequently washed.

From pregnancy to newborn baby

Hormonal changes in pregnancy can make skin suddenly sensitive. Gentle, natural oils can help reduce itchiness and the occurrence of stretch marks. Care products containing Vitamin E and high-quality vegetable oils that are rich in Linoleic Acid strengthen skin’s natural barrier function and enhance its elasticity like Eucerin Natural Caring Oil.

Once baby arrives, you may find his or her skin is also easily irritated and even inflamed. Extremely gentle, alkaline-free cleansers like Eucerin Baby Bath & Shampoo will prevent baby’s skin from drying out. While Eucerin pH5 Washlotion is suitable for the whole family, having been shown in tests to be well-tolerated. Read more about skin in different ages.

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